Labor and Staff

Women in Foodservice: Tips to Improve the Culture of your Restaurant

Dec 12, 2022

Women in Foodservice: Tips to Improve the Culture of your Restaurant

The restaurant industry has long been considered a boys club, yet women make up over half of all foodservice workers. This number includes those working front-of-house, like servers and bartenders, and back-of-house in the kitchen. However, women only hold 38% of C-suite positions1 and 23% of chef and head cook positions2 in foodservice companies.

But things are changing, and women are not only continuing to work in restaurants but working their way up, opening businesses, and making the industry a better place.

We talked to five women working in various foodservice jobs about their career-defining moments and why they decided to stay in the industry. Continue reading to learn more about their experiences, as well as ways for you to retain women on your team.

On Passion

“I stood in the walk-in, cold seeping through the thick cotton white of my chef's coat, holding the weight of the lifeless fish in my numbed fingers. Ice slipped to the floor and broke over the top of my non-slip shoes. A smile the size of Jupiter slid its way onto my face as I giggled at the ridiculousness of the situation. This was gross. Uncomfortable. I don’t even really like fish that much. I certainly don’t like scaling and breaking down cold fish while the tips of my fingers go numb. But that was the thing: I didn’t like any of this, and yet, I loved it, all of it.”

“A year prior, I had traded high-heeled shoes, slacks, and blazers for black, non-slip Danskos, chef's pants, and the most unflattering work attire a girl could ask for.”

“Very few people go into the food or restaurant industry for fame or fortune. We are quickly introduced to the blunt force reality of physically demanding labor. The reason most of us get into this world is because of one thing; a passion for food. It’s part of why the people in kitchens bond so quickly and fiercely. We have a shared lust and love for the produce, meat, and harvest this world offers up to our creativity. It’s why you can stand in freezing walk-ins holding cold, slippery fish and smile. Because this bizarre, very unconventional lifestyle is a passion project.”

Sarah Flick is a cook and freelance marketer for the food and wine industries, Napa, California.

On Working Your Way Up

“At 26, I was the youngest female Executive Chef in Providence, RI. I worked my way from pastry chef to sous chef to executive chef. ‘Stay humble, ride the wave’ is the quote I live by in my career as a chef. As the food and beverage director of a seasonal country club and the owner of my own baking business, I genuinely believe my hard work, humbled leadership, and ability to adapt got me where I am today.”

Marisa Walachy is an executive chef in Fishers Island, New York.

On Craft

“On a busy night during my first week working grill, a server came back to the kitchen and said, ‘Who’s cooking steaks tonight?’ The whole kitchen dropped silent, and all eyes were on me. My heart sank as I stepped away from the grill and hid my tongs. He said, ‘A man on table 11 who ordered the mid-rare filet told me to go to the chef right away and tell them he just had the best steak he’s ever had in his entire life.’”

“I encourage everyone to give compliments if the food is great. Maybe they’ll just stroke an ego, or maybe there’s a struggling line cook out there desperate for a sign that they're in the right profession.”

Hanalei Souza is a sous chef in Truckee, California.

On Being Underestimated

“As a woman in foodservice, I have been constantly underestimated by guests and, at times, by my peers as well. This is especially prevalent in the wine world, where everyone always wants to think they know more than you about something, including guests! I am a sommelier, but men have referred to me as the ‘little wine girl’ and the ‘hostess’. It’s exhausting.”

“I have stayed in the industry because I love the unique opportunity we have to educate people through nourishment and empathy. It’s incredible that we get to share the stories of the person who bottled that wine, grew that tomato, or made that plate.”

“I also genuinely love that I get to work with the most amazing people on earth. Industry folks are the best.”

Amanda Smith is a sommelier in Denver, Colorado.

On Having a Great Manager

“The most defining moment for me was working as a pastry assistant and finding out in my interview that my pastry chef was Black, Mexican, and queer instead of white (which I assumed based on his name) and straight. The relief I felt was immediate, and I didn’t even know I was holding in that much tension about it. He created an outstanding learning and working environment for me that was safe and exciting.”

“It is one of the few times where I, as a person of color, was not subjected to something worse than the white people around me. It also helped me imagine myself in the role and learn at a high level from someone who looked like me and had similar cultural experiences. He forever changed my life, and I miss working with him every day.”

Jesse Kadjo is a pastry chef and labor organizer in Oakland, California.

4 Steps to Improve Gender Equity in Your Restaurant

Though things are getting better for gender equity in foodservice, there are different ways that owners, operators, and managers can make equity a top priority moving forward.

  1. Educate yourself.
    Take the time to understand the issues by reading reports and data. We recommend:

    “Why Restaurant Workers, Particularly Mothers, Are Leaving the Industry, and What Would Make Them Stay” by One Fair Wage

    DEI Report on the Restaurant Industry - 2022 by the National Restaurant Association

    Learn the language surrounding DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, access), so you can adequately address the challenges in your company. What is the difference between equity and equality? What is intersectionality? Understanding the basics is essential.

  2. Identify the challenges.
    Take the time to analyze your staff or, even better, hire someone specializing in DEIA. What is the gender diversity on your team? What about your leadership team? If it’s homogenous, ask yourself (and your team) why. Maybe your hiring protocol needs an update, so you’re attracting different people, or perhaps your promotions protocol is outdated.

  3. Implement policies.
    Once you’ve identified the challenges in your organization, implement policies to change them. Essential to keeping women in the industry is addressing issues of sexual harassment, so having a straightforward process for reporting and handling cases is paramount. Other problems that cause women to leave, like childcare, can be addressed through family leave or daycare benefits.

  4. Train your team.
    Getting your team on board with addressing the institutional, systemic, and personal challenges of gender equity is vital to the culture of your restaurant business. Requiring bias, equity, and sexual harassment training is a great way to get your team on the same page. Fortunately, several organizations have developed training for these challenges, such as this training from RAISE High Road Restaurants and these from the National Restaurants Association.

Since COVID exacerbated the challenges of working in the restaurant industry, it’s more important than ever to recruit and retain quality staff. A solid strategy around diversity, equity, and inclusion is essential. Investing upfront in processes, programs, and trainings for women on your team will pay off in the long run success of your business and, ultimately, keep women in the foodservice industry. And isn’t that better for everyone?

1 DEI Report on the Restaurant Industry
2 2021, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics